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Chicago Shimpo
Jazz Pianist Senri Oe Talks about
Late-in-Life Career Change

For veteran singer/songwriter/actor/author Senri Oe, the decision to start from scratch as a jazz pianist at the age of 47 meant realizing his long-boyhood dream, and he is living the fruits of that career-change decision now.

New York-based Oe recently visited the Chicago area during his “Senri Oe in Midwest” tour, holding two jazz piano concerts at PianoForte in Chicago on June 1 and another two concerts at Summertime in Mt. Prospect the following day. He also performed solo unexpectedly at the Japan Festival in Arlington Heights on June 3.

Fifty six-year-old Oe is known as a multi-talented presence in the Japanese entertainment industry - his long career ranged from pop music singing/writing to radio program hosting to book writing. Since his debut in 1983 as a young singer/songwriter, he has provided numerous hit songs to other musicians and singers as well as producing his own albums.

When he was 15, Oe heard jazz for the first time in his life, which had a powerful impact on him – he felt as though jazz contained “a strange mystery” to be solved. The fascination had been “put away in a drawer” while he was engaged in pop music, but it had never been forgotten. In his mid-40s, when he felt he had achieved all he could in the area of pop music, Oe opened the drawer and revisited his early-day fascination to jazz. In 2008, he wrapped up his activities in Japan and enrolled in the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York to learn jazz piano from scratch. He was 47 years old.

Interview with Senri Oe

Q: What’s the primary attraction of jazz that made you to change your career?

Oe: I got attracted to jazz in my teens - prematurely. I felt jazz was sad and bright at the same time, uplifting while dealing with negative aspects in life. Of course some pop and classical music are like that too. But in jazz, for example, musicians like Thelonius Monk really jolted me. His music contains two opposing phases in it, I think – like the minor and the major, pop and jazz, pleasure and sorrow, all expressed side by side. For the performer, it’s like the thumb through the middle finger play the minor and the ring finger and the little finger express the major. That was a shock to me at 15. I tried to study it through jazz textbooks and so on, but it was totally beyond me.

I’ve fought and survived in the highly competitive world of pop music as a singer/songwriter throughout my career, overcoming many challenges with 100% effort, and I felt, “I’ve done everything I could do in my capacity.” That was when I realized I hadn’t solved the “mystery of jazz” that I felt decades ago. That’s something I haven’t achieved in my life, and I felt like I couldn’t die without trying it. That pure enthusiasm for jazz I felt when I was 15 – that’s what brought me to New York, the place of my long-time dream.

In the early 1990s, I rented an apartment in New York and went back and forth between New York and Japan. Back then, I heard young music students talking about the New School [for Jazz and Contemporary Music]. So I checked it out, and discovered that the school accepts applicants from overseas. Then, I learned a solo piece by Sonny Rollins in a hurry, played it with the help of a jazz instructor, and sent the tape to the school for audition. Then I received a reply from the school saying I had been accepted.

Q: Was it easy to give up your ongoing engagements in Japan?

Oe: I thought my agent would say “What? No way!” but they were like, “Well then, go ahead.” I thought, “What! They are not even trying to stop me.” (Laughter)
Everybody knew I was strong-willed, and they understood that my decision was based on my love for jazz.

Q: That sounds like a start with a blessing.

Oe: Well, no. I had a trouble in Chicago.
I had received a student (“F-1”) visa to come to the U.S. The F-1 visa document comes in two sheets. When I was packing my things in Japan, I believe I threw away one of the sheets because I thought it was an unnecessary duplicate.

I arrived in Chicago first. There were other Japanese students on the same plane to start the spring semester in America, and they all had two-sheet F-1 document, but not me. I was stopped at the Immigration for two and a half hours – they first said no, I couldn’t enter the country. But in the end I was allowed to enter and arrived at the Newark airport at 2:00 in the morning. The airport was empty. I waited and waited for a cab, and finally managed to get to my apartment in New York. It was 10 years ago.

Fortunately, I’ve finished the school, obtained a green card, and started up my own record label called PND Records & Music Publishing. I’ve released four jazz albums under this label so far. Now here I am in Chicago again.

Q: How was your school experience?

Oe: Everybody but me was young and they were all devoted to jazz. I felt I didn’t belong – I was an outsider with a 30-year career in pop music in Japan, without a background in jazz. And I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as I thought - that I couldn’t make it by simply spending a few years in America. I realized that I had to start from scratch.

Q: What were your lessons like?

Oe: Three students share a piano in one class, and the piano I had to share was usually badly tuned and missing some of the keys. We had to push that piano around before and after the class. Each of us was given one third of the time in one class, play our piece, and the instructor would comment on your performance.

Q: I heard that you hurt your arm and shoulder?

Oe: Yes. I was way too competitive in my first year – I overdid on my piano practice, I suppose. I couldn’t feel my left hand anymore, even when it was bleeding. I managed to find a Japanese therapist, who healed my hand over four months.

When my left hand stopped working, my beloved teacher told me: “You can try to listen to other people, and the sounds they make [while the left hand is not working]. It can be your advantage if you spend your four months that way.”

I was always in the competitive environment in Japan, where you’ll feel the threat of defeat or failure at all times, so I never looked at things that way. But the moment I let it go, I started to hear conversations, sounds, and jazz languages that I didn’t notice before. During those four months, I tried to tune into them – for example, I tried to memorize the tunes street performers were making and transfer them to 12 keys to play again later.

Q: What was your recovery like?

Oe: The left hand started to move better slowly. In my second year at the school, I began nailing auditions. In the fourth year, my performance at school recitals began impressing my friends – some of them even said, “Wow, I’m gonna be like Senri!”

Q: How did your music change during the four years at New School?

Oe: A Tunisian-born French sax player, with whom I was making music, once asked me after our practice at my place: “What’s your goal, Senri?”

“The pie for jazz musicians is already fully occupied and you can’t get in even if the door is open,” he told me. “But you’ve made a lot of wonderful music with wonderful lyrics in Japan. You can do that here in America – your pie may be small but you can expand it.” That was an eye-opening moment for me.

I was 53 or 54 then. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live, and my shoulders are not as good as they were before. I can’t expect a lot of amazing things to happen to me going forward. At that point, I thought what’s left for me to do would be to write a kind of music that conjures visual images in the listener’s mind and present it to the audience in my own unique way. I began to think that it might be possible for me to present my message of love, life, peace and my true self through artful creation of music.

I feel really honored to have come in touch with so many people during my Midwest tour so far. I’m extremely lucky and privileged to be able to present my original creation, share it with others, and receive applause for it. I’ll keep practicing to maintain my skill level, so that I can come back to Chicago for another performance.

Q: When did you begin playing the piano?

Oe: I began when I was three. I asked for it. But I stopped the lesson when I was 10, saying that I wanted to play baseball with my friends, the kids picked on me for taking a piano lesson, etc. Then my dad told me: “Someday you’ll regret you didn’t continue taking the lesson . . . If you think it’s okay, you can quit.”

Now I have to practice the piano hard every day, regretting exactly the way my dad predicted. (Laughter)

Q: What did you think about performing in Chicago?

Oe: It’ll be 35 years next year since I debuted, but I still have stage fright every time. At the opening of the concert, when the MC introduces me, it’s like my left arm and left leg are swinging forward at the same time, and I have to tell myself that I can face my audience with a smile 40 or 50 minutes from now, only if I endure this excruciating moment . . .

I want to thank everybody who supported my concerts and brought them to a successful end. Thank you very much.

Senri Oe at Japan Festival